“To dig and delve in nice clean dirt can do a mortal little hurt.” —John K. Bangs.
To settle a philosophical debate of deep and lasting import that took place the other day: Yes, eating dirt is a thing. Or at least, it used to be.
I know it sounds like the stuff of fable or at very least the sort of smart assery that infests social media, but the fact is, the practice of folks eating dirt has its origins in the Delta and is, (forgive me) well grounded, here.
And no, this is not a snipe hunt story, either.
Having grown up on a farm in the Delta about 100 miles north of here, I am actually old enough to remember hearing people talking about it in the present tense, and about a dozen or so years ago, the Associated Press even did one of their Sunday feature pieces on the subject which ran in papers around the country, the copy I retain beneath a headline which reads: ‘Eating dirt dying out in Mississippi counties.”
The AP writer of that piece featured it around a woman then at the University of Illinois in Chicago who grew up in Anguilla—not the island, but rather the town located barely five miles up the road from here—where in her youth, she apparently consumed a not insignificant amount of rich Delta dirt.
From little ole Anguilla all the way to great big ole Chicago. Have dirt, will travel.
“There was something about the dirt that would just keep bringing me back to it,” the what would now be 60-somethingyear-old told the long ago AP writer.
To which I remember thinking at the time: Could be, lady. There’s just lots and lots of stuff in the dirt in the Delta, stuff like herbicides and pesticides and what we will no doubt one day discover to be all manner of carcinogens.
But nobody was thinking about that back in the 1950s and ’60s when I remember hearing people talking about the consumption of dirt being a regular practice.
Now, I must admit that I never personally witnessed anybody chowing down on a handful of dirt. But I did know folks that flat out swore by it. And I am not talking about little kids, who can, and will put anything in their mouths with great glee. No, siree, I am talking about grownup people who lived in the same region of this country that I did and who made the conscious decisions that they were going to make dirt a regular component of their diets.
(I wonder what’s the recommended daily allowance of dirt? Would it be different for sandy land and buckshot?)
It must have led to some strange conversations back in the day: “Hey, Ma, what’s for supper? What? Dirt again?”
But I must say, I found the whole notion downright intriguing.
I did a little reading on the subject and found out that dirt eating actually has a scientific name—geophagia, which is a form of something called pica, the nutritional disorder primarily characterized by the regular eating of non-food substances.
And gosh, what a neat disorder that must be to have. Just imagine going to a restaurant with a group of friends. The waitress comes over and you get to say, “No thanks. Nothing for me, today; I’m a geophag.”
A professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center even did a study on Delta dirt eating which concluded it was a common practice in the region as late as 1971. “Back in 1971, it was not unusual to walk the streets (in Holmes County) and see some women eating and sharing a bag of dirt,” Dr. Dennis Frate wrote.
The good doctor said at that time he saw people lined up “like at a drive-through restaurant” to pick up their daily doses of dirt from a favored local distributor. (Would that have made him a dirt dealer?)
Sadly, like soda fountains and drive-in movies, it appears that the little slice of Americana that dirt-eating most certainly represents, is also passing from the Delta’s landscapes.
Dirt eaters, we hardly knew ye.
“It is very hard to find a dirt eater (now).” Dr. Frate was quoted as saying in the AP account. ‘That generation is dying out. It is not being picked up by the more educated people.”
Damned march of civilization! Must all of the old ways be sacrificed?
And interestingly enough, as far as any of the subject literature, medical included, that I can find, there really wasn’t anything so gosh-awful about dirt eating—no identified medical problems which resulted from a little dab of the dusty.
As I recall way back when, word had it that pigging out too much on topsoil could lead to a spot of constipation, a fact our ex-Anguillian verified in her interview, but as she said, “just take something for it and when you’re done in the bathroom, go out and get some more dirt.”
Do we Deltans live in a great place, or what?
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.